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Using Communication to Improve Healthcare Access and Equity

 

Gina Gay ’19 always had an interest in healthcare, but she knew clinical work wasn’t for her. Attending the University of Kansas to study communications and business, she went to school while also volunteering for the 2008 Obama campaign.

“That was my first exposure to the idea of healthcare as a right,” explains Gay. “From that experience, I knew I wanted to be part of something that could make the healthcare system more equitable.”

After graduation, she got a call from the Obama campaign once again—this time to do advance work that involved traveling the country for the former president’s second term.

That was all she needed to confirm that healthcare was where she wanted to be. After the 2012 election was over, she moved to Chicago and started working for a healthcare insurance service organization to help enroll patients into Illinois’ Medicaid program. Because the Affordable Care Act had just been endorsed in Illinois, there were some frustrating bottlenecks with the system and process.

Taking a break to try something new, Gay then worked in advertising and marketing before landing a role with a clinical trial enrollment organization where she got to work with pharmaceutical companies to create patient materials for clinical research studies.

“I fell in love,” she explains. “I didn’t even know this was an industry. I felt like there was a lack of accessibility and equity as they relate to the pharmaceutical industry and how that impacts the therapies brought to market and used for patients—and wanted to help do something about it.”

Confident she found her niche, Gay wanted to better understand the healthcare industry so she could improve accessibility and equitability. She started researching graduate programs and discovered Northwestern’s MS in Health Communication.

“It was the best fit for me because I needed to work full time,” explains Gay. “I was supporting myself, so the Saturday model worked for me. Plus, Northwestern is a renowned, well-researched, and highly acclaimed university.”

Especially during the first quarter—the program’s most reading- and writing-intensive quarter—she dedicated time each day to work on assignments. She also connected with study partners to attend afterhours study sessions and talk through what she learned in classes. “Every Saturday was exciting,” she says. “We got to see where this degree is needed within healthcare even outside hospital or clinical settings.”

Although she learned valuable lessons from all her classes, Dr. Kricke’s Dialogues About Change in Healthcare course applied directly to the work she was doing every day. “We talked about how to run and manage group meetings, change management framework, and motivating people to make changes.”

Dr. Liss’ U.S. Healthcare System course was also a favorite. “I wish we could’ve taken that every quarter,” she says. “It reveals why so many people make comments like, ‘Why don’t we just …’ without understanding the impacts. Once you take that class, you realize the nuances and how one thing affects another.”

Gay also joined the program’s Student Leadership Committee to foster collaboration beyond Saturday classes, which she says helps her cohort maintain strong connections after graduation.

“This degree is a confidence builder that speaks volumes,” she says. “It was worth the investment. It created a visual of what I’m trying to go for, with the different components involved and the way information is presented. The curriculum builds on itself. If I want to try an approach at work, now I know how it will go. It helped me understand, from the perspective of best practices, how to approach the problems I need to attack.”

In February 2020, she joined Pfizer as a patient recruitment specialist, managing several studies and patient communications. She says the pandemic has brought the importance of healthcare access, equity, and communication even closer to the forefront. For example, her employer is restructuring the way it approaches clinical research to make sure certain populations are represented—a big step in the right direction, says Gay.

“As I continue growing in my career, I know I’ll be armed with the right information when I get to the top,” she explains. “Now I can be a more effective communicator with my colleagues and the way I approach my work. I use what I learned on a daily basis.”